Saturday 9 July 2011

The Potato Thrower

A great Victorian street-performer, recorded by James Greenwood:

As witness the performer who, for many years now, has been exhibiting in the streets of London, the tools of his craft being a bag of large-sized raw potatoes. The man is beyond middle age, and his head is bald, or nearly so; and all over his cranium, from the forehead to the base of his skull, are bumps unknown to the phrenologist. There are blue bumps, and bumps of a faded greenish hue, and bumps red and inflamed, and his bald sconce looks as though it had been out in a rain of spent bullets. It is not so, however; it has only been exposed to a downpour of raw potatoes. He is well known, and as soon as he puts his bag down, and divests himself of his coat, is quickly surrounded by a ring of spectators.
    "Here I am again,! he says, with a grin, as he takes off his can and exposes his mottled skull; "here is the old man once more, and he's not dead yet. You'll see a treat to-day, for my taters are bigger than ever they were before, and, what's more, they're 'Yorkshire reds,' the hardest tater that grows. I shall do it once too often, there's no mistake about that; but I've served the public faithful for five years and more, and I ain't going to funk over it now. Here you are: here's a tater that weighs half a pound if it weighs an ounce. Chuck threepence in the ring, and up it goes."
    And threepence is "chucked into the ring, and up it does go- high above the houses; and the man with the mottled head folds his arms like Ajax defying the lightning, and gazes skywards, prepared for the descending missile; and presently it strikes him with a sounding thud, and is smashed into a dozen pieces with the concussion, and bespatters his visage with the pulp.
    "Now chuck fourpence in," says the exhibitor, wiping his eyes, "and we'll see what we can do with a tater just as large again."
    I don't know whether, on compulsion, I would rather witness the pretty sight, or stand by and see another modern street performer making a fiery meal of strands of blazing tarred rope, daintily picked from a torch with a three- pronged fork; or that other stirring spectacle of the man who lies on the flat of his back, while another places large stones on the prostrate one's chest, and cracks them with a sledge-hammer.
    It is a subject for curious reflection, what is the private life of individuals of that class last alluded to? They of course have private lives, or it would not be worth while to endure the risks and inconveniences that pertain to their public existence. Take the potato-thrower. Has he a wife and children at home waiting for him in the evening? Has the partner of his joys and sorrows always ready, by the time her husband returns, some nice comforting fomentation for his bruised head? And does he take his evening pipe and listen to the prattle of his little ones with his unlucky head bandaged in a poultice? Can he bear, after the many terrific smashes the cruel vegetable has dealt him in the course of the day, to sit down to a dish of potatoes for his supper? And does his wife, the meal concluded, count up the pence he has had "chucked" into the ring? And does she - can she - is it in human nature that she can then take the bag and go to market to replenish it with Yorkshire reds, "the hardest tater that grows?"